PAN UK: Four decades on the frontline of tackling pesticides for a safer and more sustainable future

Logo: Pesticide Action Network UK

By Josie Cohen, Head of Policy and Campaigns, PAN UK

Dying weeds on an urban street after being sprayed with pesticides
Example of urban pesticide spraying (PAN UK)

The role pesticides play in our lives is often vastly underestimated. Pesticides are present in the majority of our food and in much of our soil and water. They cover the UK’s countryside, reaching far beyond farmland thanks to their continued use in both forestry and conservation. In our towns and cities, they are sprayed on streets, sports pitches and parks without warning. Thanks to this ubiquity, and the fact that many pesticides are highly persistent and mobile, exposure is almost impossible to avoid. While farmers, agricultural workers and others handling pesticides bear the brunt of the risks, we are all exposed to the potentially harmful effects of pesticides on a daily basis, including our much-beleaguered wildlife.

In fact, it has been estimated that less than 0.1 percent of pesticides reach their target organisms, leaving the remainder to contaminate our environment. The global rate of species extinction is now tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and the absolute abundance of wild organisms has decreased by half over the past 50 years. Just over the last few decades, farmland bird populations in Europe have halved and insect biomass in Germany has declined by 76 percent. The UK has been named as one of the world’s most nature depleted countries. Pollution, including pesticides, has been identified as the fourth biggest driver of terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, third biggest driver of freshwater biodiversity loss and the second biggest driver of insect decline.

Alarmed by pesticide-harms to both human health and the natural environment, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) was born in 1986. Part of PAN International, a network of activists and NGOs around the world founded four years earlier, PAN UK was originally created as a think tank to help support civil society organisations such as Oxfam that were working on pesticides but lacked the much-needed expertise to go up against the powerful agrochemical lobby. PAN UK housed toxicologists and agronomists – jobs usually only found on the industry side – but this time focussed on reducing pesticide-related harms instead of selling more chemicals. PAN UK’s creation came just two years after the horrific Bhopal disaster when a pesticide factory in India poisoned more than half a million people. Bophal is still considered to be the worst industrial disaster in history and many of its victims continue to suffer the consequences.

Caution sign for pesticide spraying in progress
Farmer spraying pesticides on field in Kent (PAN UK)

More than 35 years later and the dire need to reduce pesticide-related harms continues, as do PAN UK’s efforts. The Brighton-based charity is small but punches well above its weight in terms of influence. While it still houses extensive expertise on everything to do with pesticides and non-chemical alternatives, it has evolved past its think tank roots into a fully-formed organisation that runs its own campaigns. Half of its focus is international, ranging from supporting smallholder cotton farmers in East Africa to adopt safer and more sustainable alternatives to pesticides, to lobbying for bans on chemicals in global corridors of power such as the UN.

The other half of PAN UK’s work brings us closer to home, aiming to tackle all the main uses of pesticides in the UK. Launched in 2019, the organisation’s supermarkets campaign calls on the UK’s ten largest grocery retailers to make improvements in eight key areas including; phasing out the most hazardous pesticides from their supply chains, supporting their suppliers to reduce pesticide use, protecting bees and pollinators, and reducing residues in food. Recent wins include Waitrose and the Coop ending the sale of pesticide products in their gardening range, M&S banning three new pesticides and restricting an additional 20 from use within their supply chains, and helping Asda to improve the support it offers to its suppliers on pesticide reduction.

Meanwhile, PAN UK’s Pesticide-Free Towns (PFT) campaign aims to end urban pesticide use by local councils. Most people don’t know that the majority of local councils continue to spray toxic weedkillers in parks and playgrounds and on pavements, including around housing estates, schools and hospitals. While in volume urban pesticide use only makes up around five percent of the UK’s total, it is the UK population’s second most common route of exposure after diet. Children and expectant mothers are the most vulnerable to the potential impacts and it is not unusual for pets to be poisoned.

Clover growing on a pesticide-free verge
Clover on verge in Pesticide-Free Lewes (PAN UK)

The PFT campaign is a truly grassroots affair. PAN UK supports almost one hundred groups of concerned residents around the UK, all campaigning for their local authority to go pesticide-free. Since launching in 2015, 123 councils have either abandoned pesticides all together or are well on their way to doing so. Instead, these councils have adopted a combination of safer and more sustainable non-chemical alternatives (of which there are many) and leaving so-called ‘weeds’ to grow, thereby helping to meet their objectives around restoring nature. The hope is that enough local councils go pesticide-free to trigger a nationwide ban on urban pesticide use. It’s high time that the UK followed in the footsteps of countries such as France and Luxemburg and banned all pesticides used outside of farming. Given that the industry and government’s key argument against pesticide reduction is that we need chemicals for food security, banning urban pesticides which has nothing to do with growing food would seem to be a no-brainer.

Aside from supermarkets and local councils, the key decision-maker on pesticides is the UK government. It not only decides which chemicals can be used and how, but also which chemicals can appear in food and in what quantities. While pesticides are technically a ‘devolved competency’, in reality, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland follow Westminster’s lead. Before EU exit, the responsibility for regulating pesticides largely sat in Brussels. While the EU pesticide regime was hastily brought across into UK law before we formally exited, there are now major questions over how the UK standalone pesticide regime will work.

Brexit has therefore brought both major threats and opportunities for reducing pesticide-harms in the UK. Domestically, the current government is talking about deregulation on a massive scale, thereby removing many of the laws that have protected both human health and the environment for decades. Post-Brexit trade deals with countries with weaker pesticide standards (which includes almost all countries outside of the EU) also present a serious risk by enabling food imports with much higher amounts of more toxic chemicals than previously allowed to enter the UK. On the flipside, the government committed to pesticide reduction in 2018 in its 25 Year Environment Plan and has also promised to transform our agricultural subsidy scheme by paying farmers ‘public money for public goods’. In other words, paying farmers to restore nature and reduce harmful inputs such as pesticides.

UK field being used for agriculture
Pesticides underpin industrial agriculture (PAN UK)

With such huge threats and opportunities on the horizon, in 2018 we decided that we urgently needed to expand the range of voices calling for pesticide reduction. As the old proverb goes, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together”. With this in mind, in 2021 we launched the Pesticide Collaboration. Co-hosted by PAN UK and RSPB, it brings together more than 80 health and environmental organisations, academics, trade unions, farming networks and consumer groups, working under a shared vision to urgently reduce pesticide-related harms in the UK. While PAN UK used to be a relatively lone voice working on pesticides, we now have influential organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, Parkinson’s UK, Unite the Union and Which? joining the fray.

In the past five years, the UK government has made a range of promises to reduce pesticide use and harms, but is yet to deliver on any of them. What the government doesn’t appear to realise is that without tackling pesticides, many other environmental aspirations cannot be met. Whether the government is aiming to halt biodiversity declines, decontaminate our water or build soil health, the continued overuse of pesticides has the potential to undermine all its efforts.

PAN UK is calling for an urgent end to all non-agricultural pesticides, including those used in the conservation sector and by local authorities in urban areas. We are also calling for the UK government to introduce a comprehensive package of support to help farmers reduce chemical dependence and farm with nature.

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Posted On: 27/11/2022

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